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They've Got Game

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The fields, of course, aren't the only thing worth looking at: "To me, the players are all artists on horses," says fashion designer Gabriele Sanders, who comes to every Bridgehampton game. "And the sport is dominated by attractive men," she adds. "Anybody will enjoy eye candy."

Susan Oliver Whitney, a member of the Greenwich Polo Club, may be the ultimate polo fan. The sport, she says, has enthralled generations of her family, starting with ancestor Harry Payne Whitney. Every summer weekend, she travels to Greenwich or to Bridgehampton to root for White Birch -- that is, if she's not watching a game in Newport. In the winter, you can find her at the Polo Masters on snow in Megève, France.

"It's very sexy," she says. "It gets under your skin. The horses and the men kind of synthesize themselves together -- a strong horse and a sexy player, that's quite a combo."

"It used to be Brazilian girls," says model-of-the moment Molly Sims. "Now it's Argentine polo guys."

When Ashley Schiff, a 1-goal patron and one of the few women in the sport, first brought Nacho to the Hamptons four summers ago, he instantly became the ultimate party "get." He was famous for the way he elegantly draped the sleeves of his sweater around his neck, not to mention his perfectly grown-out wavy locks and cowboy stubble. "We'd be playing a game and there would be women coming around at halftime, girls in heels, their Manolos sinking into the ground," says Schiff. "And I was like, 'Excuse me, we're playing here.' "Since then, the cult of Nacho has only blossomed. "He is the Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise of the polo world," says Hamptons society editor R. Couri Hay. "He draws you into the sport like other players don't. He's become the face of the sport in the Hamptons. Not Neil or Peter. How often do you want to see them with their shirts off?"

The next summer he played with Schiff on her Park Strategies team, sponsored by her friend, former senator Al D'Amato, who took over one of the tailgate tents at the game. "Nacho met the governor and Libby," Schiff says. She remembers bringing Nacho to work one day. "I was in the back," she says. "He had to walk through the entire office, and suddenly, no one -- men or women -- was talking. There was silence."

After meeting Nacho at a dinner party, Bruce Weber shot him for a Ralph Lauren ad with Penélope Cruz. (He's the guy in the tux twirling Cruz in the rain in the Glamourous perfume campaign.) Warrington Gillet, who has been filming at the games for EQ, an equestrian-themed TV pilot, was equally impressed. "I've heard five girls say they're in love with Nacho," he notes, "and five guys say the same thing."

The fact that Nacho doesn't seem to go anywhere without his 2½-year-old son, Hilario -- his Mini-Me with a complementary shag haircut -- only seems to give his fans new strategies for getting close to him. "Um, see that baby over there?" says a woman gesturing toward the tiny bundle her husband is carrying as she approaches a sweaty and mud-splattered Nacho. "She really wants her picture taken with you." Delfina Blaquier, Nacho's blonde model girlfriend (and Hilario's mom), who is always conveniently nearby at times like these, laughs at the excuse.

"I am used to it," Delfina says with a sigh.

Last Saturday, a group of girls standing by the entrance of the polo grounds confessed they missed their exit on the L.I.E. the week before because they were too busy swooning over Nacho's performance that afternoon. "We made a verb out of it -- we said we were 'Nachoed,' " says a blonde in a ruffled tank top. "And now instead of Manorville -- because that's where we were -- we call it Nachoville."

Some people describe polo as hockey on horseback. Each team has four players, one of whom is the patron. The player with the highest rating acts as the quarterback to set the strategy. Over the course of six chukkers -- as the game's seven-minute periods are called -- players attempt to score by hitting a plastic ball, the size of a baseball, through the goalposts. Riders can bump another horse but only when riding parallel to the bumpee; fouls are called constantly for crossing the "line of the ball" -- essentially the middle line of a freeway. Players must "drive" with the ball to their right at all times to prevent collisions.

"Great polo players can see several moves ahead," says Schiff. "They know where the ball is going to end up and they can be there. They can size up weaknesses and strengths of the other team very quickly."

"It's about mental toughness," says Adam Snow, a 9-goal American player. "Polo's a frenetic, dangerous game, and the ability to be calm in the middle of the storm differentiates you from everybody else." Players also need to be Dr. Dolittles who can sense when their horses are tired and need to be replaced. Managing the grooms who travel with you and pamper your mounts is also a key game skill. "You're not only a playing athlete," says Peter Brant, who was at one time the highest-rated amateur player, with a 7-goal rating, "you're coordinating a team of people who take care of what you're going to perform on."

Occasionally, polo players gravitate toward the sport on their own. But most professionals -- that is to say most Argentines, as most professional polo players are from Argentina -- come from polo families that handed them mallets as soon as they started to walk. Russell McCall, the patron of the New Bridge team, was a little older when his obsession with the game took hold: He was 52. Now, at 57, after making his fortune in wine and gourmet-food distribution in the South, he's trying his hand at his first 20-goal tournament. To practice, he's carved a polo field in the middle of his vineyard on the North Fork and has hired Matias Magrini, an 8-goal player, to lead his team. "I lived all my life on a farm in Argentina," says Magrini, standing in the middle of the practice field, bordered by Pinot Noir vines on one side and Merlot on the other. "Here is like paradise for me." It is also paradise for McCall, who "feels a thrill" just being around guys like Magrini. "It's a later-in-life enjoyment," he notes.


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